4 January 2012
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) a national asbestos trade union campaign group of which Voice is a member has called for the Government to abandon its plans to transfer the responsibility for health and safety in local authority schools from local authorities to school governors.
JUAC said that the recent judgement against the University of Lincoln indicated how easily things could go wrong with asbestos in educational institutions, and underlined how important it was for the Government to halt its plans to transfer responsibility away from local authorities that have the specialist knowledge and resources which are vital to local authority schools in the maintenance of their asbestos.
JUAC Chair Julie Winn pointed out that the governing body (and therefore the governors) would be expected to become the employer and would have to assume the full legal responsibilities for the staff and the pupils in schools:
“Governors freely volunteered their time and expertise to support schools but this is a step too far. It is hard to envisage how Governors will cope with this additional responsibility with the limited time and resources available to them.
“Despite the fact that more than 75% of all UK schools contain asbestos, currently there exists no specific school guidance for the management of asbestos in schools nor any specific training on the management of asbestos in schools. The Government has also recently scrapped health and safety inspections of schools that ensured they were achieving safe standards.
“This is yet a further attempt to deregulate without proper consideration for the practical impact upon the risk to the health and safety of staff and pupils in UK schools. This is completely unacceptable when considered against the background of the UK which has the highest incidence of mesothelioma deaths in the world and with teacher deaths from mesothelioma increasing year on year.”
Michael Lees, founder of the Asbestos in Schools Group (AIS), said:
“Asbestos can kill unless it is effectively managed, therefore the best local authorities have trained, dedicated officials so they can achieve the rigorous standards required. This proposal will inevitably put staff and pupils at risk. It will also impose an intolerable burden on governors, for if something does go wrong then instead of legal action being taken against the local authority, it will in future be taken against the governors. One must question how many people will volunteer to be governors if that is the case.”
Legal responsibility for health and safety (including the risks posed by asbestos) in UK schools rests with the employer under the Health and Safety Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and, specifically in relation to asbestos, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
The employer in maintained schools is usually the local authority. In academies, free schools and so forth, the formal contract of employment is usually with the governing bodies.
The Government is considering transferring the responsibility for health and safety in maintained schools to the governing bodies. If that happens, presumably all governing bodies would be required to enter into formal contracts of employment with school staff and existing contracts would have to be re-negotiated and transferred under TUPE to governing bodies.
The governing body (and therefore the governors) would be expected to become the employer and have to assume the full legal responsibilities for the staff and the pupils in schools.
- no specific school guidance for the management of asbestos in schools
- no specific training on the management of asbestos in schools
- 75% of all UK schools containing asbestos,
- no national audit of the type, extent or condition of asbestos in those schools
how can governors safely and competently take on the responsibility for the management of asbestos in our schools?
Governors are unlikely to have the relevant knowledge or expertise to enable them to assume responsibility for asbestos in schools. Specialist asbestos units within local authorities have carried a vital function in supporting local authority schools in their management of asbestos. Decentralisation of this important role could dramatically impact on the standards of asbestos management in UK schools.
Schools independent of local authorities also need to consider the cost liabilities of their insurance policy premiums, which they need to meet without any financial support from the local authority.
There could also be significant workload implications, particularly for small schools which will have a cost if schools are forced to become the employers. This would effectively make them academies without the academy financial subsidy.
This isn’t the first time Voice has raised its concerns about the burdens and expectations placed on governors.
“Many, including many governors, would echo that sentiment. The transformation of boards of governors, which had a limited role before 1988, into bodies with real and extensive powers and responsibilities has been remarkable. And it has taken place with astonishingly little debate about their appropriateness for what is now expected of them .
“So what we have is the creation of a system based on the assumption that there are enough competent people able and willing to take on onerous delegated responsibilities. When questioned in the early 1990s on whether sufficient governors would be forthcoming, a DES official said it was ‘an act of faith’. Subsequent experience suggests it still is.
“There are many admirable people who have shown that they are prepared to commit considerable time, energy and expertise to their local schools. But many more seem to be there out of a sense of obligation or because they hold some other local office. It can be difficult to recruit parent governors even in successful schools. Some schools struggle to fill vacancies, and some may never have had fully constituted governing bodies. Head teachers and local authorities report difficulty in persuading many governors to take up training opportunities, and union officials are well aware of the mess some governing bodies get into when dealing with personnel issues.
“Yet politicians’ proposals and comments suggest no awareness of any problems or doubts about the system they have created. Perhaps it is another case of people with little real knowledge believing that what is happening is what is supposed to happen because that is what the structure assumes will happen. So more and more has been added to the responsibilities of governing bodies since 1998 without any apparent questioning of the assumptions on which those powers are delegated.
“It may work in the independent sector. But look at the composition of the governing body of any major independent school. Is it realistic to expect governing bodies of similar experience in 24,000 maintained schools operating in very different circumstances? And what professional expertise, legal, financial and administrative, can governors of independent schools call on, either their own or from foundations like the Girls’ Day School Trust or the Woodard Corporation? With LEA education officers an extinct species, do local authorities have the level and quality of expertise to support governing bodies in their areas? If not, who does the staff work needed to make any representative system function effectively? Is this, as it so often seems to be, another expectation placed on head teachers?
“Are we locked into a system we pretend is working, or is it time we sought a fundamental review of how the public education service should be governed and administered?”
Do let us know your thoughts.